The Blog

On Secular Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism jumps barriers like a virus. It is as if religious fundamentalism is transmitted to the secular ideology of the State. Think laïcité in France today. Or, in a different dynamic, try Fox News and Tea-Party Republicanism.

Fundamentalism jumps barriers like a virus. It is as if religious fundamentalism is transmitted to the secular ideology of the State. Think laïcité in France today. Or, in a different dynamic, try Fox News and Tea-Party Republicanism.

Adam Michnik, one of Poland's public intellectuals, described the contemporary contagion in Europe as "spreading the belief that by using techniques of intimidating public opinion one can build a world without sin". The agents of this wonder-working are imagined as sinless individuals "equipped with the doctrine of the one and only correct project for organizing human relations."

I am not sure about the sinless requirement, but a striking example is the school reforms now being rolled out as the French government's response to the January atrocities in Paris. The response in les quartiers, the poor, predominantly Muslim peri-urban areas of the city, came as a major aftershock. Journalists reported that social media were condoning the murders, some schoolchildren even telling their teachers that "they deserved it". There was only patchy observance of the Prime Minister's call for a classroom moment of silence. Not surprisingly, teachers expressed anxieties about their students' state of mind, their "radicalization".

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France's Minister of Education, Higher Education and Research, supported by the French Prime Minister, came up with a comprehensive eleven-point plan, a major mobilization of schools: inculcate Republican values, citizenship, tackle inequality, promote diversity, advance research into radicalization. The answer to things going wrong in Muslim thinking was laïcité, or to be more precise, more laïcité - for it was being prescribed as an antidote to France's decline, economic and other. The Education Ministry had already produced a Charter of Laïcité for all schools in 2012 with a watchdog "Observatory" to check on its implementation. Never a mention of the word "religion" by the Minister, this was clearly a move to place schools at the heart of the State's strategy to counter religious extremism.

To question this strategy is not to envy France's virile, not to say martial national values - "les valeurs républicaines" - see La Marseillaise. True, fluffy tolerance, multiculturalism under heavy fire, democracy and the Mother of all Parliaments apparently shortly to fall down if not refurbished, lack a little panache. Though British values are best discovered animating British institutions. Rather there are grounds for genuine concern at the French approach.

Social psychologists - notably Sara Savage at Cambridge University - make a compelling argument that the extremist mind is a mind reduced to binary oppositions. An open mind is one that can handle a complex world, one that does not see things in just black and white, one that can integrate other perspectives and world-views without fear of loss of identity. Language studded with phrases such as The Great Satan, Axis of Evil, the West and the Arab World", Clash of Civilisations, and so on, feeds the extremist mind by reinforcing an ideological binary division.

Threat is the most powerful force to close down an open-minded approach to the world. And cultural threat in a globalized world is a reality for many. Framing the opposition to religious fundamentalism as more laïcité is to set up just such a binary opposition; "become more like us or be un-French and unacceptable". Framing a solution by a religious community drawing from its own tradition and sources, to correct distortions that are flourishing amongst some of it members, does not fall into this trap. The French approach will make this much more difficult by reinforcing a direct threat to communal identities. In words reminiscent of Michnik, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris, underlined that the State cannot "neutralize the difference between beliefs by establishing a chemically pure public sphere".

This is not only a French problem. The critique of multiculturalism has been gaining ground in the UK, led by the Prime Minister, and with it an individualistic fear of any form of collective/communal religious identity. There is an argument to be made that recognition and voice given to communal identities can undermine the core of human rights central to liberal democracy. But the origin of multiculturalism, whether in Australia, Canada or UK, was motivated by human rights concerns and a quest for equality in pluralist societies.

The Canadian, more accurately, Quebecois, championing of interculturalism with its emphasis on dialogue, acceptance of a majority culture, and a democratic establishment of normative behavior for citizens, is the outcome of incorporating such critiques into practice. In many ways the recognition of cultural and religious identities stimulates a much richer conversation about, for example, gender and sexuality, than would occur in a uniformly imposed monoculture. It creates opportunities for change in thinking in faith communities.

The coming G20 will likely consider contemporary security threats, either in the corridors or in formal sessions. Turkey will be chairing it. Its constitution under Attaturk had even more references to laïcité than that of Republican France from which it borrowed. And Erdogan is reacting to the legacy.

To every action and equal and opposite reaction. I should like to be a fly on the wall during Franco-Turkish conversations.